Why more people are drowning because of the pandemic and how you can stay safe in open water

With more people expect to holiday within the UK this year, it's vital to understand how to stay safe in and around open water. Credit: PA
  • Words by Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

More of us are swimming in open water than ever before since a series of lockdowns spawned lifestyle changes across the UK.

Swimming authorities are reporting an increase in the number of people taking to rivers, lakes, and the sea – and this spike is expected to continue into the summer as Brits opt for staycations.

While reports of this rise are partly anecdotal, the latest drowning statistics reflect a lethal danger attached to open-water swimming and activities.

A total of 53 people drowned while swimming outdoors in 2020, bucking a recent trend of decreasing deaths and by far the highest since 2013.

This makes up part of 631 total deaths in water last year, of which 254 were accidental drownings across various activities.

In 2019, 214 drowned and in the previous year the figure was 243 in cases believed to be accidents.

More people are expected to holiday within the UK, which means it is expected more will take to open waters this summer. Credit: PA

While the rise in 2020 may not seem significant, the lockdown enforced for weeks on end in the UK limited opportunities for people to head to open water.

This essentially means more people died over a much shorter period of time in 2020 and the fear is this could be the start of a greater increase in open-water deaths.

According to National Water Safety statistics, 43 people drowned in August last year, which is far more than any month since July 2014, when the same number of deaths were recorded.

In a particularly deadly summer, 28 died in June and 29 in July – which are themselves striking statistics when you consider that the highest number of deaths in a single month between 2015 and 2019 came in July 2018, when 25 drowned.

In total, 100 people died between June and August, at least 30 more than in any of the previous five summers.

It’s enough to alarm Lee Heard, a director at the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS), which is spearheading Drowning Prevention Week starting on Saturday.

Lee Heard says it's never been more important to educate yourself on water safety.

“Accidental drowning has been decreasing for about a decade, slowly but surely,” he told ITV News.

“Last year did surprise us because I don’t think we expected an increase like this.

“For at least a quarter of the year, people were in full lockdown, so putting that into perspective it’s a jump over nine months rather than a full year.”

So why is water more dangerous now, how much of an impact has Covid had on drowning, and what can we do to avoid the risks?

Covid is cancelling classes

So far, 8 million swimming lessons have been cancelled because of the pandemic in England and Wales.

While classes should pick up again as restrictions ease, there is no guarantee many families will still be able to afford the time or money to return.

“Access to swimming lessons and pools is potentially a social issue, so people from low economic backgrounds are potentially the hardest hit,” Mr Heard said.

“That gap has possibly widened because of Covid, so we’ve got a real concern about getting people back into the pool.”

There are fears there will be a drop in people attending swimming lessons in the aftermath of the pandemic. Credit: PA

Young people from ethnic minority communities have also been hard hit.

According to the RLSS, a staggering 95% of black adults and 80% of black children do not swim.

It all means that this year’s Drowning Prevention Week has “never been so important”, Mr Heard says.

“Pretty much every drowning is preventable and with a little knowledge it certainly is,” he said.

‘You aren’t invincible’

One campaigner who has devoted her time and energy to spreading as much of that “little knowledge” as she can is Sarah Lea.

The 36-year-old set up the Robbie Lea Water Safety Partnership, named after her son who drowned during an impromptu swim at a lake in the Lee Valley, south-east Hertfordshire.

His death drew national attention at the time, with Prince William flying in to attempt a rescue back when he was a pilot for the East Anglian Air Ambulance.

But the 17-year-old drowned moments after telling his friends the swim was “harder” than he thought on a hot day in May 2017.

Robbie Lea died when he went swimming with two friends in a lake.

“It was at the point I identified Robbie and I thought I don’t want another parent to ever go through this,” Ms Lea told ITV News, explaining what drove her to lead her campaign.

“From the moment I saw Robbie and I felt how cold he was… it was from that point.

“I just want people to realise you aren’t invincible. So many youngsters think that it won’t happen to me but it can. That is the point - your life is so precious so why risk it?”

Ever since that day, Ms Lea has devoted her time to educating children and teenagers through her outreach programme at the schools across Broxbourne, the borough where she raised Robbie.

She has worked with Hertfordshire County Council and the fire service to run sessions at open water to demonstrate proper safety procedures and behaviour, picking up awards for her initiative on the way.

Sarah Lea received an award for her tireless campaigning and outreach in Hertfordshire.

Her campaigning has also led to better labelling at the lakes where her son died, giving specific locations a coordinate or name to speed up the arrival of emergency services.

But Covid has put a block on her activities, with February 2020 being the last time she was able to organise any kind of session.

In the meantime, she wants parents to know: “My message is to talk about it even if you don’t realise or think that they would go swimming.

“I didn’t think Robbie would go to a lake but one day he went after college… they just went to muck around.”

How can we stay safe in open water?

Campaigners will be promoting ways anyone, regardless of experience, can greatly improve their safety in and around open water:

  • Plan your day and know where you’re swimming

A top tip is pick somewhere a lifeguard will be on duty.

Mr Heard said: “Our best advice is to try to swim somewhere with a lifeguard on duty, there often are but you should check ahead. We would always encourage to plan around lifeguard duty.”

You should also think about water temperature, weather, and exits from the water beforehand. Do you research on the area, then swim only if it is safe to do so.

  • Have the right equipment

Wet suits are effective against cold water shock, which, contrary to popular belief, still poses significant danger even on hot summer days.

A brightly coloured swimming hat can help in case you ever get into trouble and of course you should bring a change of dry clothes.

Bring food and drink to refuel but be very wary of any alcohol – 69 people who drowned in 2020 were found to have alcohol or drugs in their system.

  • Don’t go alone

“Going on your own is always something we’d advise against, we always tell people to go with other people,” Mr Heard said.

  • Know limits and don’t take risks

With more newcomers to outdoor swimming, more people are dipping into conditions they aren’t used to.

Stay close to the shore and swim parallel to it where possible. Stay away from deeper water, which will be colder.

It’s that cold water that often leads to drowning, so campaigners recommend amateur swimmers acclimatise at home for a couple of weeks with short, cold showers starting from just 30 seconds and building up to three minutes.

  • Stay calm if you’re in trouble

While our instinct may be to thrash around and struggle once we’re in trouble in the water, the best thing to do is to stay calm.

Lean back, catch your breath, and ‘float to live’. Then think about your exit from the water or calling for help.

  • And finally, if you see someone in trouble...

Shout reassurance to them and make sure emergency services are on the way.

Without endangering yourself, see if you can reach out to them with a stick or pole, or something buoyant.

Keep your eye on them at all times, don’t stop reassuring them and encouraging them to propel themselves to safety.

Listen to our coronavirus podcast:

Why is there more of an emphasis on the campaign this year?

The pandemic has created a perfect storm to jeopardise the nation’s safety in water.

Far more Brits are expected to stay on the island for their holidays this summer and, coupled with mass disruption to water safety outreach and swimming classes, this presents potentially dangerous months – and maybe even years – ahead.

“The real concern for us this year is there was an increase in staycations in 2020, so more people were in waterways and beaches in UK,” said Mr Heard.

“And that’s concerning for us this year because we expect the same pattern.

“We don’t want to discourage people from going to our beautiful waterways, but we need them to know how to enjoy the water safely.”

You can read more about the RLSS' safety advice here and more about Drowning Prevention Week here.

More resources are available here.